You are invited to join Brookline Bird Club director John Nelson at 7-9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24 for a walk around Gloucester’s Eastern Point–the opening event of the Dry Salvages Festival 2022: A Celebration of T. S. Eliot.
We will look for birds around Eliot’s childhood patch, with commentary about Eliot’s bird poems.
The event is free and open to the public.Free parking at the Beauport lot at 75 Eastern Point Blvd. Participation limited. Registration by email is required: email@example.com.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
If you have seen a congregation of white herons at Niles Pond, chances are they were not Snowy Egrets or Great White Egrets, but Little Blue Herons.
During the summer of 2022, we had an extraordinary wildlife event unfolding at Niles Pond. In an average year we only see a handful, if any, Little Blue Herons at Niles. Amazingly, on any given evening in August of this year, I counted at a minimum two dozen; one especially astonishing evening’s count totaled more than 65!
Little Blue Herons are an average-sized wading bird, smaller than Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets but larger than Little Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons.
Little Blues in their first hatch summer are often confused with Snowy Egrets because they are similar in size and color. A Little Blue Heron, despite its name, is mostly pure white its first hatch summer (the wings are tipped in slate gray). Their bills are pale greyish blue at the base and black at the tip, with yellowy-green legs.By its third summer, Little Blue adults have attained the two-toned rich moody blue body plumage and violet head and neck feathers.
It’s the Little Blue’s second hatch year, in-between juvenile and adult, when it shows a lovely bi-color, calico pattern that is the most enchanting. The feather patterning is wonderfully varied as the bird is losing its white feathers and gaining its blue and violet feathers. The patterning is so interesting, on one of our many visits to check on the herons, Charlotte dubbed the Niles Pond calico, La Luna.
Little Blue Herons – first hatch summer
Little Blue Heron – second summer (Luna)
Little Blue Heron – adult
Little Blue Heron adult and first hatch summer juvenile
The Little Blue Herons have begun to disperse and I have not seen Luna in over a week. They will begin migrating soon. I am so inspired by the presence of Luna and her relations at Niles Pond I am creating a short film about New England pond ecology, starring Luna!
Food for thought – Because of the drought, the water level at Niles has been lower than usual. The lower water level however apparently did not effect the American Bull frog population and that is what the Little Blues have been feasting on all summer. By feasting, I literally mean feasting. In our region, Little Blue Herons are “frog specialists.” During the first light of day, I witnessed a Little Blue Heron catch four American Bullfrogs, either an adult, froglet, or tadpole. They hunt all day long, from sunrise until sunset. If at a bare minimum, a typical LBH ate 20 frogs a day times 60 herons that is a minimum 1200 frogs eaten daily over the course of the summer.
Here in New England, we are at the northern edge of the Little Blue Heron’s breeding range. Perhaps with global climate change the range will expand more northward, although Little Blue Herons are a species in decline due to loss of wetland habitat.
Luna in early summerSnowy Egret (yellow feet) in the foreground and Great Egret (yellow bill) in the background
Compare white Little Blue Heron first hatch summer to the Snowy Egret, with bright yellow feet and black legs and bill to the Great White Egret with the reverse markings, a bright yellow bill with black feet and legs.
This month I am taking a short break from working on the Piping Plover feature documentary and am developing a film about the ecology of New England ponds. Frogs, in all their myriad incarnations, are keystone species, playing starring roles as both predator and prey.
American Bullfrogs are by far the most commonly seen. While filming and adventuring around local ponds with Charlotte we witnessed a dramatic scene where a Garter Snake snatched a Bullfrog from the road. As the snake was keeping his eyes on us, he was successfully dragging the frog into the cover of grass, simultaneously trying to devour the frog whole in one swallow. As you can see, the frog was enormous, compared to the mouth of the snake nonetheless, the snake was determined. We couldn’t continue to wait to see what took place but were convinced the snake was going to prevail and eventually swallow the frog.
Known predators of American Bullfrogs include Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons, snakes, raccoons, Belted Kingfishers, and turtles.
Little Blue Heron eating a froglet
As tadpoles, American Bullfrogs are herbivores that eat aquatic plants. As adults, ABullfrogs are carnivorous ambush predators who eat insects, birds, fish, snakes, baby turtles, bats, rodents; anything that fit into their wide mouths. They even eat each other! Bullfrogs wait patiently for prey to pass by and and then use their powerful back legs to pounce. American Bullfrogs are North America’s largest. Females are generally larger than males and can grow up to 8 inches.
Note the tail on the above Bullfrog froglet. Half tadpole, half frog, froglets are outgrowing their tadpole stage, but are not yet fully fledged frogs.
An easy way to tell the difference between an American Bullfrog and a Green Frog is to look at the fold of skin behind the eyes. The ABfrog’s wraps around the very large eardrum (tympanic membrane). The Green Frog’s fold on either side runs along the length of the body.
Did you ever wonder why some birds, such as Bluebirds and Robins, lay blue or bluish green eggs? And just as interesting why, in some cases, Bluebirds which generally lay blue eggs, a nest may comprise eggs that are almost white?
The earliest avian eggshells probably lacked color, or pigmentation. Over time, most likely to protect the eggs from predators, birds evolved a diverse range of colored shell markings from mottled brown, gray and beige to rainbow hues from pure white to pale pink, lavender, yellow, aqua, orange, blue, born and even black.
The molecules that cause pigmentation in bird eggs are biliverdin (the blue-green shades) and protoporphyrin (red and brown colors and speckles) but we can talk about blue eggs without getting too technical.
Basically, blue and blue-green strikes a balance between white and very dark colored eggs. Darker eggs are predicted in moderate light to shield the embryo from intense light, including harmful UV radiation. If when eggs are in an exposed nest and the shells are too dark, it can cause the interior to heat up, similar to a “dark car effect.” Simply stated, blue eggs regulate the effects of sunlight on the developing chick (embryo).
This doesn’t explain entirely why Eastern Bluebird eggs range from white to blue green. Many cavity nester’s eggs are white because the adults need to see the eggs in the dark. Wood Ducks are an example of cavity nesters with white eggs. American Robins generally nest in trees or a semi-exposed site and their eggs are blue, affording both protection from dangerous UV light and low risk from heating up. Eastern Bluebirds are cavity nesters but only about 4 to 5 percent of their eggs are white. Oftentimes when learning about a topic, myriad more questions come to mind!
In reading about blue eggs I thought readers would enjoy seeing the amazing speckled and pear-shaped brilliant blue egg of the Common Murre, from USFWS
Some birds with blue eggs that nest locally include Red-winged Blackbird, Gray Catbird, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, House Finch, Bluejay, Goldfinch, European Starling, Eastern Bluebird, and American Robin.
American Robin nest at a friend’s home
Both Bluebird nest egg photos courtesy Google image search
Life at the Edge of the Sea- Double-crested Cormorant Feeding Frenzy!
A note about the photos – for the past five years I have been photographing and filming the Cormorants massing. The photos are from 2016 – 2019, and most recently, from 2020. Some of the earliest ones were taken at Niles Beach in 2017. In 2018, my friend Nina wrote to say that the massing also takes place in her neighborhood on the Annisquam River. Several weeks ago, while hiking on the backside of Sandy Point, facing the Ipswich Yacht Club, the Cormorants were massing there, too. Please write if you have seen this spectacular event taking place in your neighborhood. Thank you so much!
Massing in great numbers as they gather at this time of year, Double Crested Cormorants, along with many species of gulls and herons, are benefitting from the tremendous numbers of minnows that are currently present all around the shores of Cape Ann.
Waiting for the Cormorants early morning
At inlets on the Annisquam and Essex Rivers, as well as the inner Harbor and Brace Cove, you can see great gulps of Cormorants. In unison, they push the minnows to shore, where gulls and herons are hungrily waiting. The fish try to swim back out toward open water but the equally as hungry Cormorants have formed a barrier. From an onlooker’s point of view, it looks like utter mayhem with dramatic splashing, diving, and devouring. In many of the photos, you can see that the birds are indeed catching fish.
The Double-crested Cormorants are driving the feeding frenzy. I have seen this symbiotic feeding with individual pairs of DCCormorants and Snowy Egrets at our waterways during the summer, but only see this extraordinary massing of gulls, herons, and cormorants at this time of year, in late summer and early autumn.
Cormorants catch fish by diving from the surface, chasing their prey under water and seizing it with the hooked bill.
Double-crested Cormorants are ubiquitous. When compared to Great Cormorants, DCCormorants are a true North American species and breed, winter over, and migrate along the shores of Cape Ann.
Nearly all the species of herons that breed in our region have been spotted in the frenzy including the Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, and Black-crowned Night Heron.
After feeding, the herons often find a quiet place to preen before heading back in the late afternoon to their overnight roosting grounds.
This morning while observing a juvenile Little Blue Heron fishing he captured a small pond creature, but then spit it out almost immediately. No wonder, it is so odd looking. Can anyone help ID? Thank you!
This morning at 8:30 I stopped by the Creek to see if Marshmallow had returned. I’ve been checking every morning and haven’t seen him since the morning the roped off area was dismantled, but Deb thinks she saw him last evening. I ran into Todd and Sarah and they too were looking. The PiPl that was there at the Creek this morning I think is too slender to be a forty-one day old chick. This bird doesn’t have the round plump silhouette that Marshmallow had at 38 days. I am not sure if his body would change overnight like that. We’ll keep checking and see what we see.
It’s not unusual for Piping Plovers to be seen at GHB singularly or in small groups of two, threes, and fours as the Creek especially is a wonderful stop over point for migrating shorebirds. The most Piping Plovers I have ever seen in a group at a Gloucester Beach was a flock of nine at Coffins Beach and they were together for several days before all departed overnight.
Chubby Marshmallow at 38 days, left, mystery slender PiPl, right
We also saw a Least Tern feeding its fledgling!!, a Little Blue Heron chasing a Snowy Egret, and Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers foraging together.
Least Tern fledgling
Little Blue chasing a Snowy through the marsh this morning
The beautiful event that takes place every year at this time along the shoreline and at our local dunes are the Tree Swallow aerialists massing, with each day in progressively greater numbers. They stay as long as there are insects aplenty, until one morning, you will find they have vanished, migrating to the next insect-rich location.
Also, I just added a film to the post, a short that I made several years ago titled Dance of the Tree Swallows. It goes on way too long, and I would edit it differently today, but you may enjoy the first half at least. It was mostly filmed at Greenbelt’s Wingaersheek Uplands and Coffins Beach in West Gloucester. Here is the link https://vimeo.com/201781967 – and the password is treeswallows.
Regarding our end of the season meeting, I think the best day for most everyone is Thursday. We don’t want to do it on a weekend night, too many people and not safe with corona, and too hot or rain predicted on other nights. Barbara, i am wondering if we made it at 5:00, would that work for your shower schedule?
In the span of about ten minutes, fifteen minutes tops, this Little Blue Heron ate a fish and three froglets (froglets are frogs that still have their tadpole tails).
Little Blue Heron eating froglet (note the frog’s tail).
According to Audubon and Cornell’s website, they are scarce breeders on Cape Ann, but I am not so sure about that. Although we are at the northern range of their breeding range, every year we see many first hatch year Little Blue Herons gathering at our local ponds along with other herons and egrets. They are definitely breeding on Cape Ann, despite maps that say otherwise.
The most joyous story about Cape Ann wildlife during the summer months of 2018 is the story of the high number of Monarch butterflies and caterpillars in gardens and meadows, seen not only in strong numbers along the Massachusetts coastline, but throughout the butterfly’s breeding range–all around New England, the Great Lakes region, Midwest, and Southern Canada.
Three days after celebrating the two week milestone of our one remaining Piping Plover chick, Little Pip, he disappeared from Good Harbor Beach. It was clear there had been a bonfire in the Plover’s nesting area, and the area was overrun with dog and human tracks. The chick’s death was heartbreaking to all who had cared so tenderly, and so vigilantly, for all those many weeks.
Our Mama and Papa were driven off the beach and forced to build a nest in the parking lot because of dogs running through the nesting area. Despite these terrible odds, the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plover pair hatched four adorable, healthy chicks, in the parking lot. Without the help of Gloucester’s DPW, the Piping Plover volunteer monitors, Ken Whittaker, Greenbelt’s Dave Rimmer, and the AAC, the parking lot nest would have been destroyed.
These brave little birds are incredibly resilient, but as we have learned over the past three years, they need our help to survive. It has been shown time and time again throughout the Commonwealth (and wherever chicks are fledging), that when communities come together to monitor the Piping Plovers, educate beach goers, put in effect common sense pet ordinances, and reduce trash, the PiPl have at least a fighting chance to survive.
Little Pip at twelve- through seventeen-days-old
All four chicks were killed either by crows, gulls, dogs, or uneducated beach goers, and in each instance, these human-created issues can be remedied. Ignoring, disregarding, dismissing, or diminishing the following Piping Plover volunteer monitor recommendations for the upcoming 2019 shorebird season at Good Harbor Beach will most assuredly result in the deaths of more Piping Plover chicks.
Not one, but at least two, healthy and very hungry North American River Otters families are dwelling at local ponds, with a total of seven kits spotted. We can thank the fact that our waterways are much cleaner, which has led to the re-establishment of Beavers, and they in turn have created ideal habitat in which these beautiful, social mammals can thrive.
Several species of herons are breeding on our fresh water ponds and the smaller islands off the Cape Ann coastline. By midsummer, the adults and juveniles are seen wading and feeding heartily at nearly every body of water of the main island.
In order to better understand and learn how and why other Massachusetts coastal communities are so much more successful at fledging chicks than is Gloucester, I spent many hours studying and following Piping Plover families with chicks at several north of Boston beaches.
In my travels, I watched Least Terns (also a threatened species) mating and courting, then a week later, discovered a singular nest with two Least Tern eggs and began following this little family, too.
Least Tern Family Life Cycle
Maine had a banner year fledging chicks, as did Cranes Beach, locally. Most exciting of all, we learned at the Massachusetts Coastal Waterbird meeting that Massachusetts is at the fore of Piping Plover recovery, and our state has had the greatest success of all in fledging chicks! This is a wonderful testament to Massachusetts Piping Plover conservation programs and the partnerships between volunteers, DCR, Mass Wildlife, the Trustees, Greenbelt, Audubon, and US Fish and Wildlife.
Cape Ann Museum
Friends Jan Crandall and Patti Papows allowed me to raid their gardens for caterpillars for our Cape Ann Museum Kids Saturday. The Museum staff was tremendously helpful and we had a wonderfully interested audience of both kids and adults!
In August I was contacted by the BBC and asked to help write the story about Monarchs in New England for the TV show “Autumnwatch: New England,. Through the course of writing, the producers asked if I would like to be interviewed and if footage from my forthcoming film, Beauty on the Wing, could be borrowed for the show. We filmed the episode at my friend Patti’s beautiful habitat garden in East Gloucester on the drizzliest of days, which was also the last day of summer.